This weekend’s divisional championships feature a cast of characters that would make Hollywood jealous (or at least ready to pitch a screenplay).
The grizzled fan favorite — written off last year as “too old” for football — seeking his first Super Bowl appearance in over 10 years.
The younger brother — constantly compared to his Super Bowl-winning, endorsement-pitching older sibling — reveling in his newfound ability to not fold under pressure.
The erratic trash-talker — known more for his tendency to jaw with crowds than for his skills — attempting to legitimize himself as a star player.
The respected winner — rapidly ascending into discussions of the best quarterback ever — concentrating on only one goal, another Super Bowl ring.
And those are just the starting quarterbacks, to say nothing of the supporting cast …
But before Spielberg calls, we again offer our picks.
San Diego Chargers at New England Patriots
The 17-0 New England Patriots welcome their West Coast counterparts to Gillette Stadium for the American Football Conference championship, a rematch of the Sept. 16 regular-season game that ended in a lopsided 38-14 Pats victory.
The Chargers are confident that this game will be far closer, but much of that depends on the health of their team. Most notably, star running back LaDainian Tomlinson and quarterback Philip Rivers suffered injuries last week in the Chargers’ upset win over the Indianapolis Colts.
An MRI showed that Rivers sprained his right medial collateral ligament in addition to his previously sprained left knee. For a quarterback whose mobility is questionable at full strength, having two gimpy knees could be devastating. Billy Volek showed some promise as a replacement against the Colts, but if Brady and Co. jump ahead early, asking him to throw accurately on a consistent basis will be asking too much.
The outlook is brighter for LT, who expects to play Sunday because his knee is only hyperextended. It will be interesting to see whether his trademark explosiveness is intact. If it is, the Patriots defense — which has given up opening-drive touchdowns in the previous two games — will have to worry about LT’s rushing and receiving. If it isn’t, the Chargers offense will see plenty of three-and-outs, particularly if tight end Antonio Gates continues to show ill effects of his toe injury.
With an uncertain offense that cannot match the Patriots touchdown for touchdown, the Chargers’ defense will have to find a way to stop Brady’s passing attack. One switch from the Sept. 16 blowout is cornerback Antonio Cromartie starting in their secondary, which could help the Chargers create turnovers.
However, we say “could” for a reason: once again, the Patriots have too many weapons. Wide receiver Randy Moss is capable of causing teams quick deaths, while slot receiver Wes Welker provides the slow burn. The underrated running game, anchored by Laurence Maroney, has emerged as well.
Final thoughts: as much as commentators have lauded the Chargers for showing heart against the Colts, heart will not help them against the Pats. The Brady-led offense will score plenty of touchdowns — regardless of Cromartie’s presence — and San Diego will not be able to match the Pats’ offensive production, particularly with injury sapping effectiveness.
Pick: Patriots over Chargers
New York Giants at Green Bay Packers
Who would have guessed that Eli would be the Manning to emerge from the divisional playoffs? Unfortunately for the younger Manning, the Giants’ Cinderella story ends in the National Football Conference championship.
The Giants suffered an embarrassing 35-13 defeat to the Packers in their regular-season meeting, but that too was on Sept. 16, and may as well have occurred 10 years ago. The Giants, Version 2.0, look more confident on defense under defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. After leading the league with 53 sacks during the regular season, the Giants will try to put pressure on Green Bay’s veteran quarterback Brett Favre.
The Packers too look like a new team compared to their Week 2 version. Starting in the backfield is Ryan Grant, who ironically was released by the Giants before the season began. Grant took all of two minutes last week to rid himself of the playoff jitters (granted they were a costly two minutes), and played in perhaps his best game of the year.
Favre too is a different man than he was at the beginning of the season. His numbers this year are more consistent than in the past, undoubtedly due to the greater restraint he’s shown in the passing game. Playing high-percentage ball with his young receivers, Favre has inspired confidence in his young corps, developing one of the most prolific passing attacks in the NFC.
In the end, a football team is only as good as its quarterback. Honestly, do you trust Eli Manning? Brett Favre has been a man on a mission since he decided to return this season, and he’s not going to let the Giants stand in his way.
Pick: Packers over Giants
Don’t like our picks?
Don’t just sit there, let us know why. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org (before the games), and the authors of the two best responses can publish their picks for the Super Bowl in next Wednesday’s issue of The Tech.